an on-line poetry magazine
for the 21st century

WINTER 2021-22

 

BOOK REVIEWS

AMERICAN SKULL
Lawrence Welsh
(Playhouse Publications 2021)
Review by Randy Prus

The purpose of poetry is not an accounting, but a recounting of time, years, memories—“the mystic chords of memory as Lincoln said in his poetic Second Inaugural Address. In America, the past isn’t behind us but under our feet, engrained in the naming of landscape and the machinery we use to suppress this fact. Lawrence Welsh, in his splendid new book American Skull, calls it “a remembering ground.”

The collection is arranged in four sections. The first is a whirlwind tour of the American Southwest. Place names echo the mixing of an American language, blending Indigenous, Spanish, French, English in the commodified experience of automobiles and rest stops. In this section, the dominant tropes are bones and skull, stone and steel.

Section two is a highway of random interconnections, a hallucination of highways, designed to connect us, but in an American automobile. In this section, place dissolves into memory, or as Welsh puts it “this oblivion pen.” His “casts or foundries” become action and foundation. Bones and skull dissolve, and yet retain memory. For Welsh, poetry is not a memory, but a counter-memory.

Section three reviews a drunken past, rooted in a family’s ties to Irish migration. Here, Welsh counters the narratives of the nation’s Anglo-Protestant heritage and destiny, and its refusal to make manifest that heritage and destiny. The Scots-Irish, many indentured servants, migrated to the continent, mixing freely with African and Indigenous people, moving along the Appalachians, westward. In this section, the tropes of Catholicism (mass, crucifixion, resurrection, catechism) appear—always a bug-a-boo to the Protestant narrative of Manifest Destiny, or later narratives of re-colonizing Spain’s colonies. At one point “a shadow/or an owl/or an owl sitting” illustrates Indigenous lore (specifically the Choctaws, but echoes of west African lore) becoming “all ingredients/and words/to become someone/ or something else.”

Origins come out of a mixing, an attempt to belatedly construct an identity. Section four brings this home. Here we have the tropes of music: blues, country, the car (and by extension the car radio), the jukebox, and nascent jazz. Music performs the admixture of American culture, out of the many, but never quite one. Welsh nails an “American” experience as the volume ends with “it sings/ it sings….thrown about and shook/like a million pieces/ of remaining light.”

America has always been a trip, and Welsh takes us on a path, both to and from, the bones of its calcified past, and to its ancient and empty skull.